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Cleansing and sun protection are arguably the two absolute non-negotiables of any skincare routine, but exfoliating is a close second. Regular exfoliation is essential not only for improving the texture and tone of your skin but also for ensuring that any other products you’re using penetrate better and ultimately work more effectively.
You have two options when it comes to how you exfoliate. Physical exfoliants, think scrubs, work by mechanically buffing off dead skin cells. Chemical exfoliants work by dissolving the bonds that hold dead skin cells together, explains Dr. Kim Nichols, a board-certified dermatologist in Greenwich, Connecticut, who adds that they have a nice advantage compared to their counterparts. “Physical exfoliants may tear and compromise the skin barrier, causing agitation and in some cases, exacerbating dermatitis and acne. Chemical exfoliants at low percentages work to slowly and gently resurface the skin,” she explains.
One caveat: There are all different types of chemical exfoliants to choose from, both when it comes to type and product format, and not all are created equal.
Meet the Expert
Dr. Kim Nichols is a Harvard-trained, board-certified, celebrity dermatologist that treats both cosmetic and medical skincare concerns.
Keep reading for more on our favorite chemical exfoliants that offer a little something for every skin type and concern.
Best Overall: Dr. Dennis Gross Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel
Great for travel
Good for daily use
May irritate sensitive skin
Team Byrdie sings the praises of this classic product time and time again, as do beauty editors everywhere. The daily peel pads feature a combo of alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids (glycolic and lactic, and salicylic, to be exact). They come in a two-step process; swipe the acid-containing pad on first, then use the second one, which both neutralizes it and delivers a dose of retinol for extra anti-aging benefits.
Type: Chemical, pads | Active Ingredients: 5 alpha beta acids, chamomile, retinol, green tea extract | Size: 30 treatments | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Budget: THE ORDINARY AHA 30% + BHA 2% Peeling Solution
Bottle lasts a long time
May irritate sensitive skin
Even though this rings in at less than $10, it still packs a solid exfoliating punch that’s just as powerful—if not more so—than its pricier counterparts. As the name suggests, it contains a 30% concentration of glycolic and lactic acids, and a 2% concentration of salicylic, a great trio to help not only smooth and even skin, but also help decongest clogged pores. FYI, it’s intense though, so make sure to leave it on no longer than the directed 10 minutes.
Type: Chemical, peel | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, lactic acid, tartaric acid, citric acid, salicylic acid, hyaluronic acid crosspolymer, vitamin B5, black carrot, Tasmanian pepperberry | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Drugstore: L’Oréal Paris Revitalift Derm Intensives 3.5% Glycolic Acid Cleansing Gel
Good for daily use
Can be drying
This drugstore cleanser is super effective, yet gentle enough to use daily. It contains both glycolic and salicylic acids, boosting skin and evening out tone all while helping minimize the look of pores, in one fell swoop. It’s also a super-easy way to work exfoliating into your daily routine, and because it’s a wash-off formula, it is a good choice for those with sensitive skin, too.
Type: Chemical, cleanser | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, salicylic acid | Size: 6.7 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
Best With Glycolic Acid: The Inkey List Glycolic Acid Exfoliating Toner
Helps with wrinkles
Can be drying
Because glycolic acid has the smallest molecular size and weight of any of the alpha-hydroxy acids, it’s great at penetrating deeper into the skin, where it can help promote cell turnover, explains Nichols. She adds that it’s especially helpful for targeting pigment and discoloration as well as evening the skin. Another boon? With continued use glycolic acid can help stimulate collagen production to fight wrinkles. This is one of her favorite glycolic acid-based options, a nighttime treatment that she says leaves her skin glowing.
Type: Chemical, toner | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid | Size: 3.4 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best With Lactic Acid: Sunday Riley Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment
“Lactic acid is another favorite chemical exfoliating ingredient of mine because it can be used as both a humectant and an exfoliant,” says Nichols. Translation? Not only does it exfoliate, but it also attracts water to the skin and is hydrating, which is good for combatting any dryness that can sometimes come with chemical exfoliants. Plus, since lactic acid is mild, it works well with most of the skincare products you’re already using, she adds. It’s the star of the show in this treatment, which she says can be used as a mask for 15 minutes. If your skin is a little more tolerant, you can also use it as a leave-on serum overnight.
Type: Chemical, serum/mask | Active Ingredients: Lactic acid | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Acid Booster
Treats and prevents breakouts
Safe for use during pregnancy
Azelaic acid isn’t a chemical exfoliant in and of itself, although Nichols says it’s great for preventing breakouts and targeting stubborn redness. Here, it’s paired with exfoliating salicylic acid to help dissolve oil and unclog pores. The combo addresses stubborn breakouts and ultimately minimizes discoloration for a more even complexion, says Nichols. (There’s redness-calming licorice root extract in the mix, too.) Another plus: Azelaic acid is one of the few acne-fighting ingredients generally considered to be safe to use during pregnancy.
Type: Chemical, cream | Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Size: 1 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best With Salicylic Acid: Paula's Choice Skin Perfecting 2% BHA Liquid Exfoliant
Works on all skin types
A little goes a long way
Can be drying
Salicylic acid is unique because it’s oil-soluble, meaning it can penetrate deep into pores where it can break down excess oil that can clog pores and lead to blackheads and breakouts. It makes this leave-on pick an especially good choice for those with oily skin, although it does work for all skin types. We also like that there’s antioxidant-rich green tea in the formula, and while it’s meant to be used as you would as serum, we find that it works well as a toner, too.
Type: Chemical, leave-on treatment | Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid, green tea | Size: 1 oz. or 4 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best With PHAs: Heritage Rosewater Clay Mask
Works on all skin types
Absorbs excess oil
Some may prefer a stronger formula
AHAs and BHAs aren’t the only chemical exfoliants on the block. Polyhydroxy acids are also popular; they’re much larger molecules than the others, meaning they don’t penetrate as deeply but also don’t have the same likelihood of irritation. The point is, they’re great for sensitive skin. Nichols likes this mask: “It contains gluconolactone, a PHA, that gently exfoliates and minimizes the appearance of fine lines and wrinkles without irritating,” she explains. It also relies on kaolin clay to help gently pull out excess oil.
Type: Chemical, mask | Active Ingredients: Gluconolactone, kaolin clay | Size: 2 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Toner: Bolden Brightening Glycolic Acid Toner
Easy to use
Treats and prevents breakouts
Another great pick that boasts glycolic acid, we like that this also has the added benefit of containing several other, good for your skin ingredients. Namely, hydrating hyaluronic acid to help combat any unwanted dryness, as well as niacinamide, which helps strengthen the skin barrier and boosts skin in and of itself. Simply swipe it on post-cleansing and pre-sunscreen. Happy reviewers rave about how well it combats dark spots and discoloration, particularly on darker skin tones.
Type: Chemical, toner | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, niacinamide, hyaluronic acid | Size: 7.5 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best Pads: First Aid Beauty Facial Radiance Pads
Can use on face, back, and décolletage
Not a particularly sustainable option
Single-use peel pads are quite possibly one of the easiest ways to make exfoliating a regular part of your skincare routine—all you have to do is wipe them across your face and you’re good to go. These are one of our all-time faves, loaded with both glycolic and lactic acids, alongside licorice extract and lemon peel. They’re gentle enough that they can even be used twice daily and are also great for using on your back and décolletage.
Type: Chemical, pads | Active Ingredients: Glycolic acid, lactic acid | Size: 60 pads | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Mask: Renée Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel
Washing it off can be messy
This exfoliating mask is another staple for team Byrdie—we have yet to meet someone who hasn’t tried it and loved it. Per the name, it relies on berries that are both great sources of AHAs and BHAs (more specifically, mandelic acid, lactic, salicylic, tartaric, and malic acids), and are also loaded with good-for-your-skin antioxidants to help ward off free radical damage. It looks—and smells—like homemade raspberry jam, making the experience of using it truly delightful.
Type: Chemical, mask | Active Ingredients: Mandelic acid, lactic acid, salicylic acid, tartaric acid, malic acid, blueberry extract, raspberry seed oil, pomegranate extract, bromelain, strawberry fruit | Size: 1.7 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: Yes
Best Splurge: Kate Somerville ExfoliKate Intensive Exfoliating Treatment
This pick is expensive, but it works as a cleanser, scrub, peel, and mask all in one, helping to justify the price tag. It pairs lactic acid with a trio of fruit enzymes (papaya, pineapple, and pumpkin) that further help to up the exfoliating benefits. Best of all? It works in as little as 60 seconds (leave it on for up to two minutes if you don’t have sensitive skin), and you’ll notice that your skin is softer and smoother even after just one application.
Type: Chemical, cleanser/scrub/peel/mask | Active Ingredients: Lactic acid, fruit enzymes | Size: 2 oz. | Cruelty-Free: Yes | Byrdie Clean: No
Best for Body: CeraVe Body Wash with Salicylic Acid
Easy to use
Good for daily use
Reviewers note it leaves a residue behind
Yep, the skin on your body needs to be exfoliated, too. Using an exfoliating body wash is one of the best ways to do so; this is one of Dr. Nichols’s favorites. The salicylic acid in the mix makes it great for combatting breakouts on the back and chest, and she adds that this foaming wash also helps to smooth out uneven, rough texture.
Type: Chemical, body wash | Active Ingredients: Salicylic acid | Size: 10 oz. | Cruelty-Free: No | Byrdie Clean: No
There’s a wide array of chemical exfoliators out there with something to fit every skin type and complexion concern. The Dr. Dennis Gross Skincare Alpha Beta Universal Daily Peel is our overall favorite, essentially an easy-to-use, two-step at-home peel that combines alpha- and beta-hydroxy acids. The Renee Rouleau Triple Berry Smoothing Peel is another team Byrdie staple, which also combines a combo of AHAs and BHAs, works quickly, and smells fruity and delicious. If you’re prone to breakouts, try the Paula’s Choice 10% Azelaic Booster; it uses salicylic acid and azelaic acid to both unclog pores and tamp down redness. And don’t forget that you should exfoliate your body, too. Stash the salicylic-acid-based CeraVe SA Body Wash in your shower and it will be easy to do so daily.
What to Look For in a Chemical Exfoliant
Alpha-hydroxy acids, or AHAs, are one of the best choices for gentle chemical exfoliation, unclogging the pores, evening out the skin, and helping with inflammatory conditions like acne and rosacea. Common examples of AHAs include glycolic acid, lactic acid, and mandelic acid. While these acids are relatively gentle, it’s important to patch test any new product, especially if you have sensitive skin. Also, remember that when it comes to AHAs it’s less about the dosage and more about the consistency of use.
Exfoliating can dry the skin out. After all, you are sloughing off the dead skin and debris from the top layer of your skin. To maintain your skin's hydration, opt for exfoliators that also contain hydrating ingredients. Think moisture-retaining hyaluronic acid or glycerin (a humectant).
Are chemical exfoliants bad for your skin?
Chemical exfoliators are acids (AHAs and BHAs) that work to get rid of dead skin cells and unclog the pores safely and gently. If you’re nervous schedule a visit with your dermatologist and patch test before full usage to rule out any irritation.
Can I use a chemical exfoliant every day?
While some products are safe to use every day, most experts recommend exfoliating two to three times per week. If you have sensitive skin, you should avoid over-exfoliating as it may be too harsh.
What's the difference between physical and chemical exfoliation?
Physical exfoliants use, as the name says, something physical (such as sugars) to remove dead skin cells, whereas chemical exfoliants use acids (like glycolic, lactic, salicylic) to exfoliate the skin.
Why Trust Byrdie
Byrdie contributor Melanie Rud has over a decade of experience in the beauty industry, writing for some of the biggest magazines and websites out there. She’s all about regular exfoliation, and chemical exfoliation is her preferred method of choice. She has used (or is currently using) many of the products featured on this list.
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